Networks are the Past and Future of Changing the World
This writing is a free-write inspired by devouring the first 50ish pages of Impact Networks
Networks are everywhere in our society. Sports team fans, social media, professional associations, and many more. But most people don’t see the potential to create a better world by intentionally designing networks around a shared purpose that is developed by stakeholders with seemingly different intentions.
When people want to change the world, they usually start by creating an organization. A non-proft, NGO, or purpose-driven for profit. That’s great! But it also limits you to the hierarchical structure inherent in these organizations. You need to have a Chief Executive Officer in charge. Usually a board too. And when you start an organization, you tend to become organization focused. Asking questions like “How can we reach X goal for our organization?”. You build a team around reaching these goals. The network around your organization becomes a means to the end of your organization’s goals.
Where does this leave purpose? As time goes on, the purpose can be pushed to the backseat as the organization reaches for more growth. Or it can stay in the front seat and be accomplished on an organizational scale. Say you start an organization to prevent deforestation. Your purpose metric could be trees planted, or acres of forest protected. Focusing on these metrics on an organizational level means that you might set a KPI of planting 100,000 trees and protecting 50,000 acres in a year of operation. Very impressive! But what will you have to do to reach those KPI’s? Put your head down and form partnerships centered around your organization.
Think about this in contrast with approaching the purpose from a network perspective. What if, instead of forming an organization around preventing deforestation, you started a network? Instead of navigating heavy partnerships through your organization, you could quickly onboard the most important organizations with incentives to ensure the forest stays healthy over the long term. You can clarify the purpose of the network with each of these organizations so everything they do is moving in the same direction, explicitly, giving the opportunity to form partnerships and resolve previous conflicts that may have existed between these organizations.
Then under that clarified purpose, you can set larger collective goals to work towards. With 20 influential organizations in your “prevent deforestation” network, you can goals like planting 1 million trees and protecting 100k acres of forest.
This is not as easy as it sounds, and will probably bring tension-filled situations where people with a bad history and not directly aligned incentives butt heads. But the clear purpose of the network means that all tension and conflict moves in the same direction and you can use adept facilitation to funnel it towards progress.
So, you can see how networks provide a more agile format to coordinate movement towards an overall goal. But their implementation is just getting started. Co-ops and DAO’s, legal and organizational structures seemingly custom build for networks, are just starting to re-emerge into the public focus. I’m super excited to take the network approach in building Impact Alliance to accelerate social innovation and I’m learning so much on the way. Every conversation I have with another aligned person brings me more hope that the right people are ready to drop their ego, build what works to solve problems instead of what they want to build, and put their energy into solutions that solve the wicked problems of today.
These are my semi-rambly thoughts on networks. But the point is this — networks are better structures to solve complex problems. So if you’re trying to solve a complex problem, there’s probably a network of talented people and powerful organizations waiting to emerge to solve it with you.